Friday, April 29, 2016

The Montgomery Family Cemetery

The Montgomery Family Cemetery
Whenever you're doing genealogical or historical research, one of the best sources of information has to be cemetery records. Whether you're looking for a birth date, death date, denominational affiliation, or just the correct spelling of a name (at least at the time), there's no better way to get the information than literally written in stone. I use this all the time (with the help of sites like Find-A-Grave) in my Mill Creek Hundred research.  The churchyards at Red Clay Creek Presbyterian, White Clay Creek Presbyterian, Ebeneezer Methodist, St. James Episcopal, the three Friends Meeting Houses (Hockessin, Mill Creek, and Stanton), and others have loads of great information on the past residents of MCH.

The problem, though, is that not everyone can be found at these official, church cemeteries. While most people chose to be interred in hallowed ground, some chose to remain closer to their beloved homes. Especially earlier in the history of the area, some families created and used private family cemeteries on a portion of their property. I don't think anyone knows how many of these family cemeteries there were, and I don't think we will.

While I don't believe there were a tremendous number of these in MCH, there had to have been a handful of them. Unfortunately, after years of neglect, the host family moving away, theft of the headstones (if there even were any substantial ones to begin with), and a general forgetting of where they were, these small burial yards can easily be lost. I'm convinced that there are at least some people around who unknowingly have graves hidden somewhere under their nicely-manicured suburban lawns.

However many family cemeteries there might have one time been, there is only one known one that I'm aware of in MCH today. And even though it's literally just feet from a semi-heavily traveled road, I'm sure very few people know it's there. That's a shame, because although it was until recently in pretty messy shape, the owners have done a fabulous job in making it a beautiful piece of history.

Frank and Kathy Drejka were a young, newly married couple when they went looking for a house in 1975. They found and fell in love with an old home on Old Wilmington Road, just north of Brackenville Road. The house had been owned by the Highfield family, connected I think to the Highfields who in the previous century had lived nearby in Loveville. The house had been all but vacant for a while, and Kathy was even told by one of her friends in the area that they referred to it as "The Haunted House". Many who saw the property were sure that the Drejkas could only be buying it for the land, to raze the old house and build a new one. That's not what they had in mind, though.

After doing the normal things you do when you move into a house -- like chasing the squirrels out and emptying all the acorns from the oven drawer -- the Drejkas went about fixing up their home. With the right amount of determination, effort, and money, they were able to turn it into a beautiful home in which to raise their family. But aside from the house, there was one other feature that made their property unique -- they had a cemetery in the side yard.

Location of Montgomery Family Cemetery property

The property that Frank and Kathy bought was situated on the tract purchased by John Montgomery back in 1731. More specifically, it was part of the southwest portion that passed to John's son Thomas, then to Thomas' son Moses Montgomery. It lies directly across the road from what was the oldest of the Montgomery homes, likely dating back to the time of John himself. (This house was torn down in the 1970's.) And it seems that at some point, possibly as far back as that same era, some of the Montgomerys decided that they liked their land so much, they never wanted to leave. The Montgomery Family Cemetery was born.

When the Drejkas moved in 40-odd years ago, the cemetery was not in very good shape. It was heavily overgrown, and trees had taken their toll over the years on the stone walls surrounding it. (Incidentally, from my own experience I've found that trees love to sprout up in old stone walls -- it may have to do with the lime in the mortar.) They knew that they wanted to restore the old burial plot, but it was more than they could handle at the time, with the work the house required and the specialized labor that the cemetery would need. It got put into the old "We'll get to it someday" file.

That someday turned out to be last year. They eventually heard about Delaware's Distressed Cemetery Fund, a state fund (paid for by a fee on death certificates) designed to help out cemeteries in need. They filled out the forms, put together a short oral presentation, and attended the meeting. When they got there and saw all the "professional" fundraisers for larger cemeteries like Riverview and Mt. Zion, they thought, "Um, maybe we're in the wrong place." Hoping for maybe a thousand dollars or so, they gave their spiel anyway.

Because they were required to have an estimated cost for the work, the Drejkas had already contacted several masonry firms about the work on the walls. The amounts generally came in in the $9000-$10000 range. To their great surprise and joy, early last August brought a letter from the state saying they had been approved for a $10,000 grant! Being state money, there were of course many stipulations. One of the biggest and most pressing was that the money had to be used within 6 months. With winter just around the corner, they got to work.

When push came to shove they had a little trouble finding a masonry company who would actually do the work within their time frame, but find one they did. The other major job was to clear the undergrowth and trees that were either damaging or threatening the structure. In the end, seven trees had to be taken down, to the Drejka's great dismay. The largest of the offending trees had damaged the front wall sufficiently enough that the whole front had to be dismantled and rebuilt (using only the original stones).

Arch added to span tree roots

This tree ended up necessitating a feature that had me stumped for a time, until I got the full explanation. It became impossible to remove all of the roots from the ground, so instead of rebuilding the wall over the root-filled area (and risking future damage), a small arch was built and filled with loose rubble. When I first saw this arch I assumed it was original, which made me think that the structure was originally a barn. I now know this is not the case.

Cleaned and restored headstones

The masonry work was completed in about three weeks, including work on the side wall which was in danger of falling down into the roadway. That was not the only work to be done, however. The other main jobs were the restoration of the headstones and the wrought iron gate. This work was done by the Drejkas themselves, which they put their own time and money into. Kathy spent hours scrubbing the marble headstones, which ended up cleaning much nicer than expected. Frank got to work restoring the gate, which also turned out wonderfully (so wonderfully, in fact, that they toyed with the idea of scuffing up the gate a bit to make it appear as aged as it actually is).

Interior of the restored cemetery

It may have taken them longer to get around to the job than they wanted, but I can tell you from my visits that the project was a complete success. The time, elbow grease, and money that Frank and Kathy put into the restoration was well-spent. And remember, aside from the property they have no connection to the family -- neither is related to the Montgomerys. And speaking of which, that brings us finally to what might be the most interesting, if not frustrating, part of the story -- Who exactly is buried here???

The only headstones remaining in the cemetery (even back in 1975) are of George and Mary Montgomery, who died in 1868 and 1872, respectively. Interestingly, this wasn't even their property. George was the son of Robert Montgomery, Jr., owner of the Mt. Pleasant Inn. Mary's father was Jacob Craig, onetime operator and then owner of the inn. George and Mary lived in a house that still stands on Barley Mill Road, directly across from the Mt. Cuba Center. They certainly didn't construct the cemetery and almost certainly weren't the first to use it. So, who was?

Although only the two headstones (and footstones) were present 40 years ago, there are stories of there being more of them there earlier. The story goes that many were, um, "re-purposed" by area residents into patios and such. They may even still be around somewhere. In his 1976 book A Pictorial History of Hockessin, Joseph Lake states that burials go all the way back to John Montgomery himself. Since neither John nor many of his descendants can be found in other cemeteries, this could be true. There could easily be as many as 15 burials here, according to a count done by friend-of-the-blog Hugh Horning. (It was also he who first tipped me off to this story -- Thanks, Hugh!!!)

Right now all we can really do is speculate and come up with people who, by process of elimination, could be here. One thing that could potentially answer some questions would be ground penetration radar (GPR). The Drejkas have thought about this in the past and may return to it someday. After all, they're eligible to request more funding after two years. GPR couldn't tell who is buried there, but could give us an idea of where any other graves might be and how many there are. Even without that information, though, Frank and Kathy have done a fantastic job in restoring a unique piece of MCH history. For that they deserve many thanks from those of us who like to see these kinds of things preserved.

9 comments:

  1. What I coincidence- I first noticed this grave yard when we drove past it just a few weeks ago and I was going to ask you if there had been any write-up about it. Thanks for anticipating my question!

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    1. That's funny, Bill. Even though it's close to the road, it's up a little and kind of out of your normal sightline while driving. Hopefully now more people will know it's there and what it is.

      Also, I'm just getting around to responding to the pic you put on the FB page. Good topic there.

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  2. Thanks so much for posting this Scott. George and Mary (Craig) Montgomery are my 4th great grandparents and I had no idea this cemetery existed. My ancestry research on the Montgomery line had been stuck at George and Mary until yesterday and your post has helped me past this block. I've followed your earlier posts on the Montgomery family sites and I had some suspicion they were the same family as my Montgomery's but I hadn't made the link between my George/Mary Montgomery and the others until now.
    I'll have to pay a visit to the cemetery when I travel back to Delaware in the fall to visit family. Just wanted to mention that your work is appreciated!!

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    1. Thanks, Don, glad I could help. If you want, let me know when you're back in town and I'll give you their contact info. I'm sure they'd love to meet a descendant of their, um, tenants.

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  3. By any chance do you happen to know anything about the house that was located where what is now the neighborhood of Meeting House Hill? The house/farm I'm assuming would be located right about at the intersection of present day New Side Court and Rankin Rd., the location of a friends house I pretty much grew up at years ago, and just a few houses up from where my childhood home was. It goes back as far as the 1937 photograph until the mid 60s when the neighborhood was built, and when Linden Hill Road was routed through what would be the present day neighborhood. I have been following your blog for a few years now but don't think I recall ever seeing something about this house and have been wondering for years.

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    1. Great question. I've put it on my list of future topics, but I can tell you a little about the property right now. I've traced land in that area back to Robert Crawford, Sr., who in 1777 purchased more land near where he already lived. Without picking it apart more, I'm not sure whether he first lived on the east or west side of PDH Road, because he also owned the farm along Foxden Road. Looks like the farm on the east side then went to Robert, Jr., then Robert, Jr's sister Elizabeth.

      Meanwhile Robert Jr's daughter Sarah had married Joseph Rankin (who owned land over be Louviers/Deerfield). Their son Robert T. Rankin purchased the farm in 1864 from who I assume were the executors of Elizabeth Crawford's will. Rankin lived there with (I'm pretty sure of this) his sister Rebecca and never had children. Haven't traced it further than that yet.

      I've never seen a picture of the house, so it's hard to even guess a date for it. Could have been built by Rankin after he bought the place, or it could date back to the Crawfords. With some more work and maybe a little help, I'm sure I can straighten out the property a bit more. Maybe there'll even be a clue about the house in there somewhere.

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    2. Dennis SchofieldJune 1, 2016 at 11:49 AM

      I've lived near the area and travelled right past this cemetery for decades and didn't know it was there until a few months ago. Great article and great blog - thanks!

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    3. Thanks, Dennis. Hope it helps you to appreciate it even more.

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  4. Thank you so much for your fascinating blogs. I'm a Highfield descendant; my Great Great Grandfather, Morris Highfield married Mary Elizabeth Derickson (daughter of Cornelius)and farmed the area now known as Prices Corner. My heart as well as my roots are in MCH. Susan Dunhour

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